Elite teams slip on level playing field Early results are in: 'Boys, 49ers in decline

Colts are team on rise

September 27, 1996|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

This is crazy. This is inconceivable.

This is the NFL in 1996.

The Indianapolis Colts are -- swallow hard, Baltimore -- legitimate Super Bowl threats.

The Green Bay Packers are scared of the dome.

And the Dallas Cowboys are, well, dead, aren't they?

What to make of the NFL's first four weeks?

Just when you thought the big, bad Packers would run away from everybody and win their first Super Bowl championship since Vince Lombardi, they stubbed their toe in Minneapolis.

A 30-21 loss to the still-unbeaten Minnesota Vikings isn't an eyesore until you look closly and realize Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren is 0-5 at the Metrodome.

Look closer and you find the Packers have lost five of their past seven in domes and are only 7-9 indoors in Holmgren's five seasons. Since San Francisco doesn't have a dome and Dallas (( has only half a dome, and assuming the NFC playoffs don't run through Minneapolis, the Packers still should be in good shape to complete their dream season, right?

Not if a dome is truly the Packers' doom.

The Super Bowl? It's being played at the New Orleans Superdome this season.

You should not be too surprised if the Colts find their way to New Orleans, either, as heretical as that sounds in Charm City.

The Colts made a huge statement the past two weeks, beating the Cowboys and Dolphins with a jury-rigged defense and miracle-worker Jim Harbaugh.

Playing without six injured starters, the Colts erased an 18-point deficit to beat the Cowboys, 25-24, in their half-dome in Week 3. Against the Dolphins on Monday night, the Colts were without five starters -- then on one play lost two more, both linebackers, including former No. 1 pick Quentin Coryatt.

Harbaugh, the quarterback discarded by the Chicago Bears, showed why he has resuscitated his career when he dived headfirst to retrieve a fumble late in the 10-6 victory. Harbaugh, dubbed Captain Comeback, does whatever it takes to win.

"The only two quarterbacks who would have done that," Colts director of football operations Bill Tobin said of the dive, "are Joe Kapp and Bobby Douglass."

Just when talk of another Colts move had surfaced, Indianapolis seemingly has galvanized around the team. Even the hometown fans had considered it a fluke last year when the Colts got within one game -- indeed, one incomplete Hail Mary pass -- of the Super Bowl.

Now there is no talk of a fluke. This is a bona fide contender that Tobin and coach Lindy Infante have pieced together. This season and last (under then-coach Ted Marchibroda), they beat the defending Super Bowl champions. They have won 10 of their past 12 division games. They have beaten Miami four straight times. They won their past two games without their best rusher, Marshall Faulk. They are 4-0 for the first time since 1977.

The Colts are much like the team Tobin had in Chicago, when he built the Bears' Super Bowl team around an attack defense.

"I'm still searching for the same kind of people to put an aggressive team on the field," Tobin said. "You operate the way you operate.

"We want the right kind of people, people who want to be here. It's a team concept, aggressive, hard-nosed. We're not looking for a player who wants to go to the Pro Bowl. We're looking for players trying to get to the Super Bowl."

The Colts are one of several teams that could represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. The Kansas City Chiefs, whom the Colts beat in the playoffs last season, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are the other prime suspects for the conference that has lost the big game 12 years in a row.

That streak is due in large part to the work of the reigning champion Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers. Those two teams have combined to win the past four Super Bowls and six of the past eight.

Their run is reminiscent of one by the Steelers and Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, who collectively won seven of 10 Super Bowls between 1974 and 1983.

But if recent trends are any indication, the Cowboys-49ers era might be drawing to a close. The reason? Free agency has stripped both teams of critical players and brought them back to the pack (and we don't mean just the Packers).

The 49ers haven't had a running game since they let Ricky Watters escape to Philadelphia two years ago. They rank 12th in NFL rushing this week, and the offensive line is in shambles. Not even the return of West Coast offense wizard Bill Walsh has helped quarterback Steve Young, who threw his only touchdown pass of the season in a sobering 23-7 loss to the Carolina Panthers last week.

The Cowboys, who have won three of the past four Super Bowls, have been hit the hardest, though. In the three years of free agency, they have lost a total of 24 players, 11 of them starters, including four off last year's defense.

In the same period, Dallas signed seven players, four of whom became starters.

What worsened the problem this season was a rash of injuries, coupled with the five-game drug suspension of wide receiver Michael Irvin.

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